Rick Harper is happy to retell how, while he was lugging debris from a home renovation, he came face to face with Abraham Lincoln.
He will reunite with Abe this weekend, as a pair of paintings — depicting moments in the history of the transcontinental railroad — goes on display at an art gallery in Helper, Utah. Helper is also where Harper, 71, moved last October after retiring as a supermarket bakery manager and operator of his own landscape company.
The exhibit, “Spike 150: Helper and the Railroad,” will open Friday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Anne Jespersen Fine Arts at 167 S. Main St. in Helper, and run through Aug. 2.
Harper found panels for two paintings while remodeling a Victorian house on Third Avenue in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood in 1991. He was tearing down the walls in the kitchen and throwing debris out the window to load into his pickup truck.
“I started loading the truck, turning over one of these pieces of debris that I had taken out of the house, and there was President Lincoln looking at me,” Harper said. “I was going, ‘Oh, my heavens, what have I done?’”
He started looking through the debris, and found more wooden panels that had been painted. “I put them together, and I’m going, ‘Oh, dear. These are not the same paintings. Now I have ruined two paintings.’”
Harper found all the pieces, and enlisted a Salt Lake City art conservator, Elizabeth Provost, to restore the paintings. The paintings turned out to be the work of John McQuarrie (1871-1944), a San Francisco-based artist known for large murals that loomed over train depots across the West.
Harper speculated that someone cut the McQuarrie works into panels, and nailed them facedown to the kitchen wall “so they were deliberately hidden for some reason.” Years of wallpaper covered them further.
McQuarrie’s first railroad murals, created in 1909, are overhead in Salt Lake City’s Union Pacific Station, now the centerpiece of The Gateway shopping and recreation center. One mural depicts Brigham Young leading the Mormon pioneers in 1847, and the other shows the driving of the Golden Spike to ceremonially complete the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Harper said McQuarrie could have painted the panels that were hidden in the Avenues home when he was in town installing the Union Pacific depot murals.
The panels appear to be studies for future murals, but the images — one of Lincoln shaking hands with railroad magnate Leland Stanford to seal the deal to build the transcontinental railroad, the other of the construction of the causeway over the Great Salt Lake — don’t appear in other McQuarrie murals. His work can be found in train stations in Houston; Mesa, Ariz.; and in Sacramento, San Jose, Palo Alto and Salinas in California.
Harper, an art collector who boasts a Picasso ink-and-paper work among his possessions, has displayed the McQuarrie paintings around the country. This April, Zions Bank acquired the murals for its extensive collection, and the exhibition in Helper is the first time the paintings have been shown since that acquisition.
The location is appropriate, said Scott Anderson, president/CEO of Zions Bank, because “Carbon County has a rich rail history.” Helper today is a stop on Amtrak’s California Zephyr line, which runs from Chicago to Oakland, Calif., and travels some of the same route as the first transcontinental railroad.
The exhibition’s opening in Helper will be “a party atmosphere,” Harper said. “I am so happy that [the paintings] have found a home. … My art has sort of been my babies. And I certainly babied those two paintings, from abused pieces of art into what they are today.”
Get out and celebrate the sesquicentennial
While many Spike 150 exhibits and performances are located in Salt Lake County, communities around the state are celebrating the milestone anniversary. Here are some highlights from other counties; find details and more events at Spike150.org.
• “Spike 150: Helper and the Railroad,” May 3 to Aug. 2. This free art exhibition features two large paintings by artist John A. McQuarrie, depicting historic moments toward the creation of the transcontinental railroad. The opening is scheduled Friday, May 3, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Anne Jespersen Fine Arts, 167 S. Main St., Helper.
• Opening ceremonies, Saturday, May 4. Box Elder County will host the sesquicentennial’s opening events. A horse and wagon parade showcasing the lifestyle of 1869, with period clothing and equipment, is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Main Street in Brigham City. A hoedown will begin at 6 p.m. at the Box Elder County Fairgrounds Event Center in Tremonton. Admission is free and no tickets are required. Learn more at boxeldercounty.org.
• Iconic locomotive steam meet, Thursday, May 9. Union Pacific locomotives Big Boy No. 4014 and Living Legend No. 844 will meet at Ogden Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave., at 10:30 a.m. on May 9, followed by speakers.
• Corinne The Gentile City, May 9, 10, 11. A comedic pageant telling the story of Corinne, which was founded in March 1869 and reigned as the unofficial “Gentile Capital of Utah.” A group of former Union Army officers and determined non-Mormon merchants from Salt Lake City had decided to relocate to a “gentile” town on the Union Pacific line. The pageant will start at dusk, and there will be preshow entertainment, booths, concessions and wonderful country air. Learn more at historiccorinne.org.
• Party at Heber Valley Historic Railroad, Friday, May 10. The 1869 Golden Spike Party will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the depot at 450 S. 600 West, Heber City. A ticketed, two-hour round trip train ride departs at 7 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., fireworks will be followed by a bonfire and celebration dance. Details at hebervalleyrr.org.
• Hooper City’s Spike 150, Friday, May 10. The railroad is key to Hooper’s history and the community plans a celebration from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on May 10 at the Civic Center, 5580 W. 4600 South, followed by fireworks. All events are free; food trucks will have food for purchase available.
• Golden Spike National Historic Site, May 10, 11, 12, Brigham City. Events and activities are planned for each of the three days, but tickets are required. Jupiter and No. 119 replica steam engines will arrive on the 10th, followed by a ceremony and the performance of the musical “As One,” which will be broadcast by KSL-Channel 5 and the Utah Education Network (UEN). Tickets for Friday’s events are sold out; tickets for Saturday or Sunday are $10 each, available at https://purchase.growtix.com/eh/Spike_150/21865.